China Won 2020. Should That Bother You?
The world welcomes 2021 in Wuhan (left) and New York (right.) (via Business Insider)
Watching the news in January of 2020, you could be forgiven for thinking China was in for a rough year. Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, had just entered a lockdown unprecedented in human history due to the discovery of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, or as we all know it by, COVID-19. As the virus spread through China, so did restrictions. At one point, over 250 million individuals were under strict quarantine measures.
As the spread continued to accelerate, angry criticisms were levelled at Chinese authorities. Li Wenliang, a doctor from Wuhan, first recognized and warned people of the new coronavirus strain. In response, local police forcibly silenced him for “publishing untrue statements.” Li Wenliang died of COVID-19 just 34 days later, sparking national outrage at the government. The hashtag #WeWantFreedomofSpeech began trending on Weibo, garnering over 2 million views in just five hours before being censored. In a country where government critics regularly find themselves imprisoned, such blatant proclamations are virtually unheard of.
And yet, here we are 12 months later, and China has maneuvered itself into a more favorable position. “China sees it as reasserting themselves. They’re returning to a role as a leader in the world,” says Jon Taylor, an expert in Chinese politics and public policy from the University of Texas San Antonio. So what happened?
For starters, despite originating in China, those stringent lockdown measures proved effective, and COVID-19 is virtually nonexistent in China today. While the virus continues to rampage across most of the world, day-to-day life has mostly resumed in the Middle Kingdom. China has reported approximately 6000 new cases of COVID-19 since April 2020. The rest of the world reported over 80 million new infections in the same timeframe, meaning the rate of infection is around 3000 times lower than the global average in China.
The economic benefits of getting “back to normal” are also plain to see. While most countries still struggle with various lockdown measures, China is full-speed ahead. It is the only country in the world with an economy projected to grow in 2020, by about 1.6% according to the World Bank.
Another economic victory came with the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement between Asian and Oceanic countries that constitutes 30% of the world’s population. Now the world’s largest trading bloc, the RCEP has the goal of reducing 90% of tariffs over the next 20 years. As the world’s largest exporter of goods, this bears enormous economic implications in the coming decades for China. The RCEP is seen by many experts as a shift of the world’s economic center back towards Asia. This was further underscored by President Trump famously pulling out of the competing (and China-excluding) Trans-Pacific Partnership earlier in his presidency.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” was supposedly first opined by Winston Churchill, but it’s a sentiment that seems to have been adopted by China in 2020. Aside from an effective pandemic response allowing them to weather the economic storm, many of China’s presumed political goals were also advanced this year.
Headlines across the world were often dominated by China’s internal politics in 2019. Extensive reporting on massive pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet was done, all issues China considers strictly their own business. However as the pandemic consumed the world, these stories took a backburner in the news cycle, leaving China more maneuverability to handle these issues in their favor. In May, Beijing passed controversial national security legislation to crackdown further in Hong Kong, and accusations continue to abound in Xinjiang. While developments in these situations are still ongoing, there’s no doubt that global scrutiny has shifted away, something the CCP is sure to be glad of.
By 2049, President Xi Jinping has promised China would “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” and build a “stable international order.” It’s becoming clearer that China sees itself setting the terms for international relations in the future, challenging the United States in a role it has solely occupied for decades.
The United States however, has had much rougher 2020. The world hotspot for COVID-19, the US has seen more than 21.3 million confirmed cases and over 362 thousand deaths, making their infection rate over 15000 times higher than China’s. An uncoordinated pandemic response and politicization of the virus has lead not just to an unsuccessful containment of COVID-19, but also an economic contraction of 3.6%. Racial tensions were also highlighted as mass protests for the Black Lives Matter movement broke out across the country, occasionally escalating into violence from both sides. Additionally, a turbulent election deepened an already cavernous political divide, which today sees President Trump continuing to claim election fraud against him, despite not producing any credible evidence. This most recently culminated in a Pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol in outrage over the certification of President-elect Biden. Largely incited by President Trump himself, these developments continue to erode global confidence in the American system, and legitimize the CCP authoritarian ethos.
If this is the best that the United States, the self-proclaimed world leader of freedom and hallmark of democracy can offer, China’s version of governance is looking more reasonable to a global audience all the time. According to a Pew Research poll, opinions of China have continued to decline in advanced economies like Canada and Western Europe. However, views of China are increasingly positive in developing countries and mid-level powers such as Argentina, Russia, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil and Israel. When it comes to President Xi’s explicit goal of “blazing a new trail for other developing countries,” it appears he’s on the right track.
So China had a good year. As an American reading this article, you may find this information uncomfortable. However, that may have more to do with the Western perception of our relationship with China than the reality of it, fueled by media sensationalism and political talking points.
As Taylor explains, the United States has framed China as an “enemy” in recent years, something that is not in line with historical precedents or present realities. American business interests and support was a crucial factor in China’s rise in the first place, and comparisons of a “Second Cold War” hold little water. Compared to the USA-USSR relationship of the Cold War, ideological differences are minimal, and economically the US and China are inescapably intertwined.
“If we want to have a chance at a cooperative relationship in the future,” says Taylor, “we need to view China as a ‘competitor’ instead of an ‘enemy’.” Much like Android with the rise of Apple, he proposes the United States needs to step up to improve itself. “If Trump is really serious about competing with China, then the U.S. should double down on basic research, fund infrastructure, and triple-fund education.”
Who knows? Perhaps if a refreshed American government takes that advice, 2021 will be a point for America on the U.S.-China scoreboard instead.